Modia Minotaur

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Sunday, December 10, 2006

Ending the Blame Game

I am yet to read a scholarly discussion of Kevin Rudd's pledge for co-operative Federalism that has really got the point of what he's on about. Many have dismissed as nothing more than an intellectual exercise. It's certainly an intellectual exercise, but it's also a pretty shrewd recognition of an issue of great populist concern, too.

The fact that the only person that has appreciated this so far is one John Howard only serves to consolidate this view. You don't have to like Howard to concede his ability to read the collective public mind.

Without prompting, Howard began his interview on this morning's Insiders with a pointed defence of current State-Federal relations. Journo Matt Price later argued that recent COAG meetings have been a `lovefest'. This is fundamentally missing the point. It's only a handful of years since a series of rancorous COAGs, culminating in a walkout by State Premiers. Let's not forget how enormously unpopular such behaviour was. I clearly remember the talkback radio that followed: why, at a time when we most need co-operation on the health system, water sharing, transport, infrastructure and national security, are leaders acting like brawling teenagers? The message is clear: people want solutions, not arguments. Recent COAGs have reflected this - the equanimmity even coming, some may argue, at the expense of better outcomes for the states.

Picking up on this issue is a good demonstration of the way Rudd has managed to cultivate two broad-brush constituencies both of whom feel a sense of ownership and allegiance to him, but whom are almost entirely unaware of one anothers' existence. As I said previously, there are those who recognise Rudd as a member of the `Sunrise family' - a mainstream media personality. At the diametric end of the spectrum, there are the readers of the highbrow intellectual The Monthly, where Rudd has been carefully cultivating his credibility on a broader range of political and philosophical areas over the past few months.

The Federal-State issue appeals to both constituencies for different reasons. The latter constituency are concerned about such things as the increasing encroachment of the Federal government into State affairs, the abuse of the Constitution represented by WorkChoices, and the deficiencies in the Constitution that allow such things to occur - a sentiment that goes back to the Dismissal.

The former constituency see a number of practical problems as arising from blame-shifting and poor delineation of State-Federal duties, from water sharing on the Murray-Darling to the effectiveness of hospitals. The `blame game' is genuinely detested; genuinely complained about to and by the likes of Alan Jones. I have even been surprised about how the depth of anger that still exists about the G.S.T. - a tax that was supposed to `solve' the constant debate over the Commonwealth Grants programme.

How Rudd takes this issue forward will be interesting to observe. Firstly - and I hate myself for saying this - it needs a catchphrase or a cover-all term that does not alienate those who are worried about workplace rights but would draw a blank if you started referring to Section 51 of the Constitution. The `blame game' has been used by many (including me), but it doesn't tell the full story.

Rudd also faces a juggling act on issues such as the always contentious distribution of Commonwealth Grants. NSW has made much of the inequity of current arrangements - but also that it is Queensland and WA who are benefiting at their expenses. Given how much has been made of the importance of winning seats in Queensland and retaining the support of Kim Beazley's supporters in WA, I can't see him pushing those states to hand back the dough and do without luxuries such as petrol subsidies. However, formalising State-Federal relations - something Kim Beazley alluded to late in his leadership, but provided few details on - could not only be a popular move, but one which could fix a system which, as the Prime Minister conceded this morning, has been fundamentally dysfunctional since its creation.


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